Obama warns: Re-elect Trump and U.S. democracy dies
In this image from video, former President Barack Obama speaks during the third night of the Democratic National Convention on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020. | Democratic National Convention via AP

PHILADELPHIA — Re-elect Donald Trump, Barack Obama warns, and U.S. democracy dies. That, in a nutshell, was the stark message Obama delivered about his successor to the entire country in a speech from the U.S. Constitution Center in Philadelphia on Wednesday night.

“I have sat in the Oval Office with both of the men who are running for president,” Obama said, since Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden was his VP and Obama met with Trump after the latter won the electoral vote majority in 2016. “I never expected that my successor would embrace my vision or continue my policies.”

“I did hope, for the sake of our country, that Donald Trump might show some interest in taking the job seriously, that he might come to feel the weight of the office and discover some reverence for the democracy that had been placed in his care.”

Then the former president, whose prior experience included being a constitutional law professor, lowered the boom.

“But he never did,” Obama said.

The former president’s unprecedented criticism of the right-wing GOP incumbent was meant for the whole country, though technically he spoke to the Democratic National Convention. He was the first of two closing speakers on the conclave’s third night, Aug. 19. Biden will deliver his keynote address to the convention on Thursday night, but Wednesday evening belonged to his old boss.

Obama drew on his rhetorical skills, his knowledge of the Constitution, the law and how government works, the moral leadership a president should show, and his eight years’ experience in the Oval Office. Trump, Obama said, is not just deficient but dangerous.

Trump has especially trampled on the norms that make the U.S. a democracy, however imperfect, Obama said. And four more years of Trump rule could produce a complete collapse.

Others, including VP nominee Sen. Kamala Harris just afterwards and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, speaking to the convention’s Labor Council, have criticized Trump’s trashing of constitutional norms, but not with the same experience, moral clarity, or credibility to issue the warning.

“At minimum, we should expect a president to feel a sense of responsibility for the safety and welfare of all 330 million of us, regardless of what we look like, how we worship, who we love, how much money we have, or who we voted for,” Obama began.

“We should also expect a president to be the custodian of this democracy. We should expect that regardless of ego, ambition, or political beliefs, the president will preserve, protect, and defend the freedoms and ideals that so many Americans marched for and went to jail for, fought for, and died for.” ‘Preserve, protect and defend the Constitution’ are in the president’s oath of office,” he said.

But for close to four years now, Obama said, Trump has “shown no interest in putting in the work, no interest in finding common ground, no interest in using the awesome power of his office to help anyone but himself and his friends, no interest in treating the presidency as anything but one more reality show that he can use to get the attention he craves.”

Obama said that his successor “hasn’t grown into the job because he can’t.” The consequences of that failure are severe, the former president said, recounting the worst: “170,000 Americans dead. Millions of jobs gone while those at the top take in more than ever. Our worst impulses unleashed, our proud reputation around the world badly diminished, and our democratic institutions threatened like never before.”

Obama spent the next section of his speech explaining Biden’s role in his own eight-year administration. He said what led him to pick Biden for the #2 job was that Biden—whom Obama did not know at the start—“treat(s) every person with dignity,” empathy, and decency. The two became extremely close personally. Biden “was always the last one in the room” with Obama when a major decision was being considered.

Obama returned to the constitutional theme at the end of his address, warning Trump would do whatever it takes to stay in the White House, including trampling on the nation’s foundational document, using cynicism, and manipulating the U.S. Postal Service to drive down the vote.

“This president and those in power are counting on your cynicism. They know they can’t win you over with their policies, so they’re hoping to make it as hard as possible for you to vote, and to convince you that your vote doesn’t matter. That’s how they win. That’s how they get to keep making decisions that affect your life and the lives of the people you love.”

“That’s how the economy will keep getting skewed to the wealthy and well-connected, how our health systems will let more people fall through the cracks. That’s how a democracy withers until it’s no democracy at all.”

Obama issued stern counsel to voters: “We can’t let that happen. Do not let them take away your power. Don’t let them take away your democracy.”

That threat, Obama said, can be broken by a massive landslide of popular and electoral votes for Biden and other defenders of democracy, though he did not use the landslide word.

“This administration has shown it will tear our democracy down if that’s what it takes to win. So we have to get busy building it up, by pouring all our effort into these 76 days, and by voting like never before, for Joe and Kamala, and candidates up and down the ticket, so that we leave no doubt about what this country we love stands for, today and for all our days to come,” he ended.

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CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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